How ‘the crookedest elevator in Iowa’ was built

DSC_0416Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It was a terminal elevator, a family operation, capable of supplying a custom mix of feed fine-tuned to the individual farmer’s requirements. It sat along a rail line that ran through Dow City, Iowa, along U.S. 30 in the western part of the state. And it had been crooked as long as it existed.

There were two different explanations offered for its seemingly casual slouch. The first was intended for credulous tourists, and the last was a more scientific tale. But I liked the first story better.

You see, when the wooden elevator was built, the crew employed for nailing the boards was instructed to rotate around the structure as they built it. That way, the fellows who hammered harder would work their way around the elevator, keeping it even. That precaution had been neglected. The slackers on one side of the elevator, by not pounding as hard, left the rising wall noticeably taller on their side than did the guys who could swing a hammer. Thus, the finished elevator gained a noticeable tilt.

dsc_5941I bought every word of it. I imagined the men smacking the boards tightly on one side, and their chagrin when they discovered what they had done. But alas, the truth was far less romantic.

According to the owner, the builders set the foundation in soggy ground left from years of servicing steam locomotives, and the elevator sagged into the bog as soon as it was built.

Humbug.

dsc_5929In the next post, I will explain how this pay-as-you-go family operation skipped the concrete elevator stage of business. The present effort to modernize must do so without the subsidies that characterized the concrete elevator boom.

 

 

 

Near Chelsea, Mich., an elevator introduces us to ‘blisters’

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IMG_5894Story and photos by Ronald Ahrens

In Michigan for some meetings and library research, I drove along the back road in Lima Township between the towns of Chelsea and Dexter and came upon an elevator.

IMG_5896Seeing me taking pictures, an employee asked if he could help me with anything. Identifying myself as a grain elevator buff, I received an invitation to come into the office. So I climbed up a steel ladder, entered a dock area, and passed through two doors leading into a warm office.

Photos on the wall showed the elevator when it must have been new in the mid-1950s. I’d noticed a “B” on the manhole cover, but the name of the builder was unknown. However, I was told that laborers from the state prison in Jackson worked on the construction.

Chelsea Grain LLC has operated the elevator a relatively short time. (It made news in 2013 after the local fire department responded to an incident involving a grain dryer.)

IMG_5899My other question concerned the apparent oval shape of the silos.

The answer: “Blisters.”

“Blisters?”

I dashed back to the car to fetch a business card. By the time I returned, a drawing had been prepared by way of answering.

Yet, this term begs for elaboration, which perhaps our readers can provide.

Meantime, thanks to Chelsea Grain for the hospitality.

 

Elevator construction men found time for romance on the side

Commentary by Neil Lieb with photo from his archive

A little quirk happened in West Bend, Iowa. Construction men were known as love ’em and leave ’em. Blaine Bell, Ed Hart (roommate from Gilmore, Iowa) and myself all married girls from West Bend. Pop Bell was a sawman for Bill Russell—all he did was cut lumber, all the pieces, all the forms. He had a big table saw, probably an 18-inch rotary blade driven by a two- or three-horsepower electric motor.

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

Blaine Bell and I, in West Bend, they built a feed manufacturing building next to the elevator next to Main Street, downtown. My wife Jolene’s father, Joseph Higgins, had a barber shop. They had an apartment right behind the barber shop and she used to come out and hang up clothes and the normal stuff. My wife was a redheaded Irishman. Blaine kept saying, “I have to see if I can get a date,” and it irritated me.

One day I made a point to be on the ground when I knew she was coming out of the house. I got a date with her. She wasn’t supposed to date construction people. We were married over 59 years. That was in October of 1950.

Editor’s note: This anecdote is from an interview on July 18, 2014.

Getting off-level and taking a fall at Tillotson’s Bushland, Tex., elevator

Entering Bushland, Texas. Photo by Stefan Joppich, used with permission.

Entering Bushland, Texas. Photo by Stefan Joppich, used with permission.

Commentary by Neil Lieb with photo from his archive

Somewhere between checking the water level when we started and checking it in the middle, the forms became about 3.5 inches off level. That’s because one guy who was running the jacks on one side wasn’t making his rounds as he was supposed to. The guy was fired on the spot.

Now you had to get the decks level again. When you’re going off level, you’re going at an angle. So what happened, you got a little swerve in the tanks. It’s only an inch. You can’t see it. The only time is if you go up and down on a hoist. So the bottom and top are not exactly over each other.

It had no effect. Not enough to be significant. We were about 65 or 70 feet in the air when it happened.

Every job had a peculiarity. The guy in Bushland jumped off the top. He started to fall, so he jumped. He jumped out far enough to land on the sand pile. We were probably 40 to 50 feet. He landed on the side of the sand pile and slid to the bottom.

We said, “How you doing?”

He said, “Oh, I’m fine. I’ll be a little stiff and sore.”

There were seven guys that I worked with. Baker was one and Bill Russell, all of ‘em fell or got killed somewhere along the line.

When you’re working in the air, you become careless because it’s like walking on the ground, but you’re not walking on the ground.

Steelworkers, they all say you get too familiar with working off the ground. When they do that, they become careless.

 

Details, details! Here’s more about the finished grain elevator at Alta, Iowa

The finished elevator. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

The finished elevator. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, with photo from his archive

That’s the west side of the elevator. If you were bringing grain in, you would go in that door and out the other door. See that railroad track? All elevators I’ve ever been near, seems you go in the back side and out the front side. You see the second row of windows? You see where the last “A” is? That’s where the motor sets. The belt would be on the right-hand side of the driveway. The driveways are always offset to one side, and the belt to the other side. The drive motor sits about where that “A” is, maybe about the top. It sits on top of two I-beams. They go into the wall of the headhouse and the wall of the shaft that drives the belt. The lettering was done after we left. Tillotson didn’t have anything to do with it. Some sign company came in and did it. They used lead anchors. It had a steel in the middle and lead sleeve on the outside. You can go to a hardware store and still buy them. They had a drill—they called a star drill—and you hit it with a hammer. You hit it, you turned it. You hit it, you turned it. You use a five or seven pound shop hammer to hit it with. Now they have drill bits that cut through concrete. There’s probably an anchor, on the T, at each corner, the middle at the top, and the bottom. The big letters have three or four. The small letters have two. I have no idea, I didn’t do it. See the dark part at the bottom of the pipe, that’s flex pipe so you could put it in the grain car.

 

 

 

 

 

Minneapolis, Kansas sports a completely unique Tillotson elevator, circa 1947

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

I knew there was a small Tillotson elevator in Minneapolis, Kan., when I stopped there last weekend on a quick trip to Nebraska from Wichita.

I had a weekend layover and a rental car, and was headed up to see my folks. The town is right where I-135 gives out when driving north from Wichita. I had to get off anyway to continue north, so when I spotted the elevator down by the railroad bridge, I went to check it out.

The Minneapolis elevator was recorded in the concrete elevator specifications of the Tillostson Construction Company. It was one of the handful of Tillotson projects built in Kansas.

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The manhole cover at the base identifies Tillotson Construction of Omaha as builder.

I did not expect what I found. The manhole cover identified the builder, so there was no doubt, but this 1947 creation was unlike any Tillotson elevator I had ever seen.

The elevator was starkly beautiful, balanced, and gracefully situated in its surroundings. Though it was small, its perfect proportions and simplicity made it monumental. A wide-angle, close-quarters view made it look even grander in the photo.

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I have a passion for window panes—the more, the better. They look good in photos, and the Tillotson Company must have agreed—the several windows that let light into the headhouse to illuminate the workspace had a multitude of them.

It may be a nostalgic thing for me—I remember as a little kid seeing painted panes left over from the blackout days of the last great war. It took lots of paint and many, many hours to cover the hundreds of panes in an aircraft hangar or gymnasium, but it was the only way to hide every scrap of light from an anticipated airborne menace. Many years later, after the paint was peeled and broken panes were replaced with unpainted ones, an interesting patchwork remained. That image held fast in my childish memory.

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Though the cooperative was closed for the weekend, blower noise testified to the elevator’s present utility, along with that of its towering neighbors. After the 1947 elevator was built, more capacity was added—a second elevator and a large annex stood beside the Tillotson structure, and judging by their style, they probably came along not too much later. The whole complex was perfectly neat and tidy.

I took advantage of the quiet and did a thorough job photographing the exterior of the elevator and its companions. Further investigation will have to wait for a time when someone is home at the co-op.

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Specifications

The specifications describe a small, early elevator, of only 100,000 bushels capacity. It was intended to serve a mill operation. The elevator was built using the “Pond Creek plan,” which specified 4 tanks with a 15 1/2 ft diameter, 125 ft drawform walls through the cupola, an attached driveway, no distributor floor, 6 spreads and 9 bins.

Capacity per Plans (with Pack): 100,000 bushels

Capacity per foot of height: 1,020 bushels

Reinforced concrete/plans (Total): 906 cubic yards

Plain concrete (hoppers): 10 cubic yards

Reinforced steel/Plans (includes jack rods): 40.67 tons

Average steel per cubic yard of reinforced concrete: 90.3 pounds

Steel & reinforced concrete itemized per plans

Below main slab: 3,720 lb/34.4 cu yd

Main slab: 12,775 lb/84.7 cu yd

Drawform walls: 56,190 lb/694 cu yd

Work & driveway floor (including columns): 112 lb/1.3 cu yd

Deep bin bottoms: None

Overhead bin bottoms: 910 lb/6.5 cu yd

Bin roof (garner): 730 lb/7.7 cu yd

Scale floor (complete): None

Cupola walls: Drawform walls

Distributor floor: None

Cupola roof: 3,053 lb/21.4 cu yd

Miscellaneous (boot, leg, head, track sink, steps): Included

Attached driveway: 4,250 lb/56.0 cu yd

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Construction details

Main slab dimensions (Drive length first dimen.): 41 x 41 ft

Main slab area (actual outside on ground): 1,626 sq ft

Weight of reinforced (total) concrete (4,000 lb/cu yd + steel): Excluding driveway,  1,752 tons

Weight of plain concrete (hoppers 4,000 lb/cu yd): 20 tons

Weight hopper fill sand (3,000 lb/cu yd): 218 tons

Weight of grain (at 60 lb per bushel): 3,000 tons

Weight of structural steel & machinery: 10 tons

Gross weight loaded: 5,000 tons

Bearing pressure: 3.08 tons per sq ft

Main slab thickness: 18 in

Main slab steel: (straight): 1 in diameter at 9 in o. c. spacing

Tank steel at bottom (round tanks): 1/2 in diameter at 12 in o. c. spacing

Lineal feet of drawform walls: 310 ft with no extensions

Height of drawform walls: 125 ft

Pit depth below main slab 13 ft 3 in

Cupola dimensions (W x L x Ht.): 17 ft 7 in high within drawform walls

Pulley centers: 128.25 ft

Number of legs: 1

Distributor floor: No

Track sink: No

Full basement: No

Electrical room: No

Driveway width–clear 13 ft

Dump grate size: 1 at 5 ft x 9 ft

Columns under tanks-size: None

Boot — leg & head: Concrete

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The grain operation is a close neighbor to residents of the town. This old house is under renovation.

 

Machinery Details

Head pulley size: 72 x 14 x 2 3/16 in

Boot pulley size: 72 x 14 x 3 7/16 in

Head pulley rpm: 36

Belt: 280 ft, 14 in 6 ply calumet

Cups: 12 x 6 in at 10 in o. c. spacing

Head drive: Howell 20 horsepower

Theoretical leg capacity (cup manufacturer rating): 5,780 bushels per hour

Actual leg capacity (80 percent of theoretical): 4,600 bushels per hour

Horsepower required for leg (based on above actual capacity plus 15 percent for motor) 17.9 hp

Man lift: Hand operated

Load out scale: None

Load out spout: None

Cupola Spouting: None

Truck lift: 7.5 horsepower Ehr

Dust collector system: Fan → Air

Driveway doors: One sliding

Conveyor: None

Remarks

Cupola in drawform walls

 

Also Built

Transfer spout to mill